My Take: Stop using churches as polling places
The author says that churches that act as polling places can sway voters.
November 6th, 2012
09:19 AM ET

My Take: Stop using churches as polling places

Editor’s note: The Rev. Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

By Barry W. Lynn, Special to CNN

I live in Maryland, where we have a lot of controversial questions on Tuesday's ballot, including referenda on marriage equality, the rights of immigrants and the expansion of gambling.

Many churches and other houses of worship have taken stands on these issues and lots of others, which is their prerogative. Although federal law prohibits churches from endorsing or opposing candidates, they have the right to speak out on ballot referenda and on other issues, from abortion to zoning.

All of this church-based political activity makes me uneasy about casting ballots in houses of worship, especially those festooned with political signs. And yet today, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of churches around the country are being pressed into service as polling places.

At Americans United for Separation of Church and State, we get a steady stream of calls about this phenomenon every election season. Some complain of being forced to cast their ballot in a house of worship when there’s a nearby public school, library or community center that could just as easily act as a polling place.

Casting a ballot in a church? Tweet us about it

We shouldn’t dismiss these concerns as whining from an overly sensitive band of people who are religion-phobic. These concerns are legitimate. And some intriguing studies even suggest that voting in a church might influence voters.

The American Humanist Association, which filed an unsuccessful lawsuit against voting in churches in Florida, cited a recent Baylor University study published in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion that found that people in the Netherlands and England reported more conservative views to a pollster when in the vicinity of a church.

“[The] important finding here,” said the study’s co-author, Wade Rowatt, “is that people near a religious building reported slightly but significantly more conservative social and political attitudes than similar people near a government building.”

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An earlier study by Stanford University reported a similar effect. “Voting in a church could activate norms of following church doctrine,” said Jonah Berger, a Stanford researcher. “Such effects may even occur outside an individual’s awareness.”

In Maryland, this might mean that an on-the-fence voter facing the marriage equality question might be pushed to vote no by something as simple as a sign or pamphlet in the church/polling place. Such material might even affect a soft voter’s candidate choices.

How is this possible? Psychologists call it “priming,” the idea that even subtle visual or verbal cues can affect human behavior.

More studies need to be done to validate and explain this phenomenon. In the meantime it would make sense to avoid using churches as polling places. Neutral sites should always be preferred.

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There are other reasons to skip casting ballots in the basilica.

I’ve talked with people who describe their unease voting on an abortion-related referendum in a Catholic church, where they may be surrounded by posters depicting abortion as a grisly holocaust. Others say they don’t want to back an abortion-rights candidate in a church that is known for anti-abortion activism.

No public library, public school or town hall would display such material next to the voting machines. No government building would have a towering cross in the voting area.

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Many of those who have contacted us about this have reported that churches will not remove this material and that pastors argue that they have a right to keep it up.

As churches become more aggressive in the political arena, the argument that they can be neutral sites for voting, a concept that has been embraced by some courts, comes up short.

I’ve even talked with atheists, Jews, Muslims and other non-Christians who don’t want to exercise a basic constitutional right in a church. These people have nothing against Christianity; they simply don’t believe that a fundamental democratic right should hinge on their willingness to enter a church. (And yes, most of the houses of worship used as polling places are Christian churches.)

People who support using churches as polling places often point to the need to maximize the number of polling locations to increase turnout. That’s a laudable goal, but there are many ways to do this that don’t rely on using churches, like early voting and voting by mail.

Imagining the first Mormon White House

For those who prefer to show up in person on Election Day, there are plenty of schools, libraries, town halls and civic centers to meet the need for polling centers. In small towns and rural areas, well-known commercial sites would make better polling places than churches.

If there is absolutely no other option than voting in churches, I recommend that election officials make it clear to officials at the church that they must play by the same rules as every other site.

That means no politicking inside a certain zone. And the area where the voting occurs should be cleansed of all religious symbols and political material. The voting area should be as neutral as possible.

Voting is every Americans right, some would say duty. Let’s do all we can to avoid making people feel unwelcome at the ballot box.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Barry W. Lynn.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: 2012 Election • Church • Church and state • Politics

soundoff (1,507 Responses)
  1. Carla

    There is no church in America that deserves a tax-exempt status. I know a guy at my workplace who is the pastor of a church. The parishioners donate to the church every Sunday, the church pays for this guys living expenses while he works a full time job and drives a Mercedes. To top it off, he's an ex-con who found religion in prison...

    November 6, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • Tim

      So I guess ex-cons aren't allowed to try to make a living for themselves after their release? Might as well just sentence everyone to life if that's the case.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Anthony Bourne

      interesting how you can make a sweeping generalization that every church in America doesnt deserve tax exempt status.

      Let me make a few sweeping generalizations.
      Everyone should pay taxes
      No one in America deserves to have to be taxed for something they do not personally use
      All Liberals are delusional

      thank you

      November 6, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
  2. Ahone

    I support separation of church and state and believe the article makes some good points. I live in rural East Texas. Sadly, there are just not enough public facilities that are safe from the weather and can be handicapped accessible.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
  3. B. Elsa Bob

    That is why I don't vote.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Carla

      If you don't vote, then you have not right to complain about anything.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Anthony Bourne

      That is the most pitiful excuse for not voting.

      You dont vote because it is in a church?
      How weakminded do you have to be to make such a statement, The church has that much power over you?

      Your just making an excuse because your too lazy to get off your butt and vote, or you simply dont care enough.

      Also you can cast an absentee ballot where you dont have to vote in person.

      your arguement is invalid

      November 6, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • B. Elsa Bob

      Who said I was complaining? I think everything is just peachy.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • B. Elsa Bob

      Jesus, you guys are pitiful. Are you that head up your AZZ to not see the name I put out there. It's a freakin joke. No wonder this country is going to hel.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:31 pm |
  4. luckyponytoo

    Wow...I didn't even realize this was such a common thing. I always thought it was because I grew up in a backwards little town that we had to vote in a church. Even though I've grown up mostly free of religious brainwashing, it is still unnerving to think about voting on important issues with Jesus staring down at me from the cross. I'm so glad that I live in a place now where I can vote without gruesome depictions of torture and death surrounding me. The good thing I learned from voting in churches is to make sure I researched the issues and knew how I wanted to vote BEFORE I got to the polling place, lest Jesus and Mary make the decision for me.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Anthony Bourne

      Its so great you dont have to look at those horrible depictions of toture and death. I hope you dont watch tv or movies either, that would just be bringing those horrible depictions into your house. Oh, and dont turn on a video game, those things are all about death.

      Also when your voting, try and not think about the 76 million unborn children that have been murdered legally in the past 35 years. Those are truly horrible depictions of toture and death, especially since they are allowed to have their brains sucked out and dumped in a garbage can while still breathing if they make it through the abortion alive

      November 6, 2012 at 3:32 pm |
    • Bet


      Instead of making up false depictions about the horror of abortion, why don't you go to a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen and see what real, living children suffer through when they are born to a life of poverty, abuse and neglect.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • W247

      Bet: Who is running those homeless shelters and soup kitchens?
      Better yet, why don't you go to a third world country, where the goverment has NO interest in helping out there poor, and see how these kids live and who is supporting them. Chances are you will see somekind of religious organization supporting their life. Betcha betcha betcha.

      November 6, 2012 at 6:10 pm |
  5. RoswellCoug

    I think we should all vote at schools in rooms with mural walls depicting Our Dear Leader.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
  6. scott

    Lynn, and so many others, are mostly about needless complaints – never solutions. This country is based upon Judeo Christian principles, and if you want to run from that – please start and don't look back.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Bet

      No, it's not. Stop spreading the lie that the USA was founded on Christian beliefs, it wasn't.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  7. Seattle Al

    Well then, let’s be fair. You couldn’t use a school when any school funding issues are on the ballot. Nor a government building when taxes are on the ballot. That would raise conflicts of interest as well.

    It should be noted that the poll workers in churches are NOT from those church, they are recruited/hired by election officials.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
  8. Romney is busy losing right this moment!!!

    It's about time. Akin and Mourdock go bye-bye too (and with them a Republican majority), thanks to their religious lunacy.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
  9. doug

    What's the matter Barry, etal., is your conscience bothering you?

    November 6, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • B

      We shouldn’t dismiss these concerns as whining from an overly sensitive band of people who are religion-phobic. These concerns are legitimate. And some intriguing studies even suggest that voting in a church might influence voters.

      If you are this influenceable then you have no right or business voting for anything much less the President of the United States.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
  10. loucioccio

    Today we voted (wife and I ) at our polling station a Baptist Church. No signs either for pro choice or pro life. The youth group sold pastries and free cookie on stick to toddlers. We voted previously at a Methodist church until church dissolved because of low membership and again no political signs. We have never seen or heard a problem.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • rob

      Isn't the church itself a sign/symbol? Dummy.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:17 pm |
    • Larry Barry

      While there is no doubt that there are a large number of churches being respectful and conscientious, there are unfortunately a large number who are abusing the election process and actually violating laws against political displays within a certain distance of polling places.

      But if you read the article, you will see that the very act of being in a church alters their mindset and potentially their vote. This will only affect the minority of voters of course (it's not like atheists will suddenly vote Jesus), but this election is close. And it is offensive to some to vote in a church, just as it would be offensive to a different group to vote in a mosque, or a Planned Parenthood.

      Religion has become so political that for some churches are not neutral grounds.

      But of course, a sizable proportion are acting honorably.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • B

      @ Rob....
      Are people really this whiny? GROW UP and go do your business and leave. If a church possesses you and votes for you then you have WAY MORE ISSUES than voting in a church.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:24 pm |
  11. shoos

    Good article, valid points.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
  12. rob

    Churches are for retarded sheep.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:14 pm |
    • God's Oldest Dreamer

      What then are intellectual sheep to do with their challenged sheep? Send them to wherever and be herded by whomever while eating whatever?

      November 6, 2012 at 3:21 pm |
    • Tim

      So says an atheist who has nothing better to do than troll a blog about religion.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
    • B

      I don't know any retarded sheep. I know plenty of retarded liberals though.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
    • Nate

      Baaaa. I'm one of those sheep you refer to and proud of it. Thanks for your firm commitment to the freedom of religion in our society. You are a true unAmerican! Our church is used for polling in the gym where there are no signs. So if basketball goals and metal walls affect your voting, you weren't very committed in the first place.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • fintastic

      churches are for people that believe in fairy tales.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:53 pm |
  13. God's Oldest Dreamer

    Votes of Water

    Voting is kinda like a fountain's waters sprouting from its' middle straight up and coming down into one pool to meander to the pool's edge falling into a second pool and doing the same towards the last and final pool and finally getting caught up to once again repeat in a never ending cycle of unending desperation.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Bet

      I think you got some bad weed.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  14. Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

    secular.Every follower of truth absolute GOD, foundation of America, feels uncomfortable entering a place negating truth absolute GOD and American consti tution, such as a Church, dungeon of hinduism, illegality, decorated with sign of hinduism, racism, cross, not belonging to America, but of hindu Lucifer, filthy self centered, secular.Celebrating hinduism, illegality, way of hindu's, criminal's, one has to be a hindu ignorant or borne in hind, filth of hinduism, ignorance, way of hindu's blinded, not living but mentally dead.
    Word hindu is driven from latin word hindered, negative, Hun, great, Han, to be in greatness, hin, to be negative to both of them, hindu, a noun in negativity, hinduism, way of negativity. to learn source of hinduism, racism, way of hindu's, criminals, please visit limitisthetruth.com.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • rob

      Way to prove every Atheists theory that religious people are morons..

      November 6, 2012 at 3:15 pm |
    • SkepticalOne

      @rob The only thing EliminateBlahBlahBlah's rant proves is that mental illness is bad.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:35 pm |
    • fintastic

      somewhere in there it says Paul is dead.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • bignevermo

      jeez you really an id10t !

      November 6, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
  15. Ron

    " *DO* think that churches should lose their tax exempt status whether or not they they attempt to exert pressure to vote one way or another. They don't need tax exempt status and they've done nothing to deserve it. And recently, they've done plenty to abuse the privilege."

    You are right. Churches or other places of God do not need to be tax exempt. They raise plenty of money and are rich enough to build bigger places of worship than our schools and on every block. Must be nice to collect 10% of income and then preach about lower taxes for the rich. KEEP RELIGION OUT OF POLITICS. Religion has caused wars and death
    and divide and hatred and the church is now pushing to run this nation, to push its belief, to judge all others, to force its ways. What ever happened to do to others as you wish others do to you. How would the church feel if Muslim was pushed onto our schools/

    November 6, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • Rick

      I agree with you. Churches and religious organizations should not receive tax exempt status. This is a practice that I believe should stop. I daresay that religious people will disagree with that. As for having to vote in a church – what's that all about? This morning I had to go vote in a church and I don't care for it. Religious folks are fine with that I'm sure but if they had to vote in a mosque, would they feel the same way? I doubt it. We need to work harder for getting religion out of our government.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:26 pm |
  16. MK54

    I am quite happy to vote at Minnetonka Lutheran Church. It is very convenient; just one block away from home.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:11 pm |
    • bignevermo

      Say hey to my home state...the great state of Minnesota...i am just soaking up the heat here in Miami now!! 🙂

      November 6, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  17. ug

    Who caress what your take is on voting in churches...maybe people live to far to vote elsewhere you commie bassturd.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • logan5

      This article discussed a valid issue. For those struggling to leave Christianity and adopt agnostic or even atheist views, having to vote in a church could sway them to vote yes when they really meant to vote no. The grip religion has on the psyche is very powerful and they KNOW this. Sure the church might a convenient distance from your home, but so might a school or library. And what does communism have to do with this LOL

      November 6, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • fintastic

      "bassturd".............. Low frequency poop?

      November 6, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  18. tone

    i voted today at a church wihin walking disctance of my home, same place i vote for past 10 years, i dont attend that church and vst majority of the people voting their do not attend that church. sounds like non issue to me.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  19. ThatTexasGuy

    What if your polling place was a mosque? How would that make you feel? Be honest...

    November 6, 2012 at 3:07 pm |
    • Yeah

      Or a Planned Parenthood?

      November 6, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
    • MG

      Wouldn't bother me in the least. If the mosque is kind enough to open its doors to allow us to vote, then kudos to them. I honestly don't care where you ask me to vote as long as I still have the ability to exercise that right.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • GW

      Yes, why not? I'm not there to worship.

      November 6, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  20. linda

    I'm in agreement with the blogger who never enter's a church and is phobic. Who do you think the volunteers are two years ago I (literally) wrestled my democratic ballot from the hands of a church volunteer. There are schools, libraries, community centers why must I enter a church something I refuse to do on any other occasion.

    November 6, 2012 at 3:06 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.